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Health Highlights: Nov. 30, 2010

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

U.S. Senate Passes Food Safety Bill

A bill that would make major changes to the United States' food safety system was passed by the Senate Tuesday in a 73 to 25 vote.

The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration expanded powers to ensure food safety in order to prevent outbreaks of food-related illnesses, The New York Times reported.

For example, the FDA would have new powers to recall tainted foods, increase inspections of food plants, and force farms and food manufacturers to follow stricter safety standards.

Even though the Senate bill has wide bipartisan support, it may not reach President Barack Obama's desk before the end of the current congressional session. The House passed its own version of the bill last year and there may not be enough time for lawmakers to work out differences between the two bills.

However, leading House Democrats have indicated they would consider passing the Senate version to speed approval, the Times reported.


Low U.S. Health Ranking Due to Health Care System: Study

Health care system inefficiency explains why the United States ranks 49th in life expectancy even though it spends more on health care than any other nation, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University analyzed World Health Organization data from 1975 to 2005 in order to compare the U.S. and 12 other industrialized countries, The New York Times reported.

During that time, the U.S. had the highest increase in health care costs and the lowest increase in life expectancy. The researchers said statistical evidence shows that obesity, smoking, traffic accidents and murder are not the cause of lower life expectancy in the U.S. The problem is the health care system.

"Smoking and obesity are still major risk factors for an individuals health," researcher Dr. Peter A Muennig told The Times. "But they are sapping life expectancy in all countries. Whereas in the U.S. we have a highly inefficient health system thats taking away financial resources from other lifesaving programs."

But one expert criticized the study, published in the November issue of the journal Health Services.

"The basic message is correct -- that measures of U.S. health, including mortality and morbidity, are very poor in comparison with other countries," Samuel Preston, a demographer and a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Times.

But the study authors "have no direct evidence about the health care system in this article," Preston said. "Their conclusion is extremely speculative."


Drug Use Implicated in a Third of Fatal Car Crashes

Drugs were detected in one-third of drug tests performed on U.S. drivers killed in crashes last year, a 5 percent increase since 2005, according to a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration report released Tuesday.

The tests revealed that drivers had taken drugs ranging from prescription pain killers to hallucinogens, USA Today reported.

Last year, 63 percent of drivers killed last year were tested for drugs, a 7 percent increase from 2005, said the NHTSA.

The number of driver fatalities involving drugs is "alarmingly high" and more states need to make it a crime to have any amount of illegal drugs in the body while driving, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told USA Today.

Currently, only 17 states have such laws.


Congress Postpones Doctors' Medicare Payment Cut

A one-month delay in Medicare payment cuts to doctors was approved Monday by the House of Representatives, giving lawmakers more time to develop a long-term plan to overhaul the system.

The bill, passed by the Senate earlier this month, postpones a 23 percent cut in Medicare payments to doctors that was scheduled to take effect Dec. 1, the Associated Press reported.

The short-term delay was commended by American Medical Association President Dr. Cecil B. Wilson, who noted that the first baby boomers will turn 65 next year and begin using Medicare, the AP reported.

"Congress is responsible for ensuring that the baby boomers can see a doctor through Medicare by enacting long-term reform next year of the broken Medicare physician payment system," Wilson said.

A year-long postponement that would give lawmakers time to create a new Medicare payment system for doctors is being developed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. and the committee's leading Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa, the AP reported.


Alcohol-Spiked Whipped Cream Concerns Health Officials

Alcohol-infused whipped cream is the latest booze-related concern for U.S. health officials.

The product Cans of Cream is 30-proof whipped cream that comes in flavors such as chocolate, raspberry, orange and cherry.

Consumers "can get a significant amount of alcohol in one shot," said Dr. Anita Barry, a director at the Boston Public Health Department, United Press International reported.

It's likely that Cans of Cream will be targeted at young drinkers, said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health.

"What we need is a good surveillance system to be able to monitor these things," he said, UPI reported.

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Posted: November 2010